The busiest story ever told: the tale of seven artists, 72 hours and a 60-page comic book
This is the fictionalized tale of seven brave writers and pencilers who, despite the short amount of time given, created a 60-page comic book with the most important characters of the company they worked for. This “life and death struggle” has been overlooked for 75 years, while other moments in comics are constantly celebrated. I know this story is only loosely based on real events (although I love to think this is what really happened) but I hope I can make these forgotten creators justice.
33rd Street, New York. Fall, 1941
She was lying in the sofa when it all began. Ms. Robinson had the bad habit of falling asleep to the radio, which had really bad consequences for her. The old lady´s doctor had told her that she should sleep in her bed, or “your back will resent, my dear”. That really scared poor Ms. Robinson: she needed her strong, awesome, amazing, incredible back to aid her will of iron in her house labors. Otherwise, her son would taste a bad food, have a poorly-made bed and, the worst of it all, his precious infant would lack the support of a strong and healthy mother when he came back from the Army.
Because he most certainly would come back. Yes, he had to. Those war rumors were pure nonsense, Roosevelt (God bless him) would never do that to them after the Depression. And, because they were pure nonsense, she had to be a good mother.
That´s why she didn´t like to sleep in the sofa. But there was another reason. She could hear the nasty and impolite young man he had as a neighbor. She could hear that Bill Everett.
She didn´t know what he did for a living. Perhaps he was a journalist, perhaps a pulp writer… but she suspected otherwise. Perhaps he was part of those occult forces conspiring to destroy the lives of the decent citizens of America. Nazi spies or those madmen at the Bund Party or commies… all difficult words to fill politicians´ mouths, but easy to summarize in a single one: trouble.
She heard the voice of a young man. He was enraged, shouting his guts out of his mouth. She hadn´t heard that voice before, but knew what the voice of a lunatic sounded like.
“You exploiters! I´m as good as any of you, pretentious writers wannabe!”
“Hey, stop it there!”, shouted the strong and furious voice of that Everett. “Do you know who my ancestor wa…”
“Yesh!”, he replied. “You always say it when you´re drunk! But you´re no William Blake! No, sir! And you´re never gonna be!”
Maybe it was just alcohol (she missed the Prohibition days so very much) speaking instead of reason, or maybe it was something more. Maybe there could be more trouble than just a broken nose.
She went to the restroom and took it from the wall. A couple of days before leaving her, her husband had told Ms. Robinson:
“It was useful to hunt ducks, so it might as well hunt crooks.”
And she was no weakling. Her husband always repeated that, and his son also knew it. She could take on any Nazi that came to disturb the quietness of the building.
She walked very, very slowly, approaching Mr. Everett´s door like she was one of those detectives at the radio.
She knocked the door once.
“Is that that dreadful Lee!?”, shouted the voice of that Burgos. He was a dear friend of Mr. Everett, at the point that she had suspected many things before knowing that they were spies. “Tell that whiney editor to wait a minute and stop bossing around!”
“Dear God”, she thought. “He´s clearly inebriate.”
She knocked the door twice.
“Oh, no!”, yelled another voice. “I told you that this Sahle character was being too artistic for so little time! It´s a comic book, for God´s sake!”
“Calm down, Kapitan”, replied another voice, also drunk but more relaxed, presumably that of Mr. Sahle. “We´ll finish just in time.”
“We have thirty pages more to go and the script isn´t even finished!”
“We´re writing it, Roy”, answered Everett. “Just do your work with the pages that Chapman and Compton have already revised and let us concentrate!”
“Concentrate!”, screamed that Kapitan. “But it is those writers who are not concentrating! They have only revised twenty two dirty pages of this… nonsense!”
“Don´t call it a nonsense!”, shouted the first voice she had heard, visibly offended. “I´m doing my best, but we only have one blasted night left!”
She knocked the door again.
“Wait, my friends.”, interrupted another voice, deep and calmed, with a touch of elegance unfitting in that rude ambient. “Someone demands our presence. Perhaps it is adventure, perhaps it is romance. Perhaps it is just Death and who am I to deny its wishes?”
A slightly older than Everett but still young man opened the door. He was drunk too, but he was a polite drunkard. That was the difference between Winston Churchill and that Tramp from the movies. And he was no tramp. His blond hair was a bit untidy, but he had made an effort to comb it. He smelled to liquor, but he wore glasses and smoked in a pipe just like a good gentleman.
“Oh, so it is Death”, smiled him, looking at her shotgun. “And, unexpectedly, I´m glad to meet her. Now I see why she attracts so many people…”
“Stop blabbering”, ordered Ms. Robinson. “What are you people doing here?”
“Oh, well”, he replied. “We´re doing our duty. We´re offering America inspiration, inspiration to go to the war against tyranny. To the war against terror! Through the writing of comics, of course.”
She could have just shot him right there. She decided to slap him instead.
“That´s what you think you´re doing, you lazy… cartoonist!?”
“Lazy? How can we be lazy, if we´re doing 60 pages in the surprisingly short time of 72 hours? It is an achievement, lady. It is…”
“Listen to me, sir”, she answered. “My son is doing his duty. He´s in the Army. Do you understand what that is?”
His sad expression was the only answer she needed.
“Oh”, she replied. “I´m…”
“Don´t worry, madam. It´s ok.”
“Well. But anyway, why do you have to shout so much? Why do you have to get drunk?”
“Well, they shout because the collaboration of men is the battle of egos. About the alcohol… The will of men is weak and the power of Bacchus is strong… and hard times are good times to get drunk.”
“Hard times? Is it hard times for you?”
“Well, we´re bad payed and have… only 16 hours.”
“Oh, that´s a good question. Let me tell you a story…”
“Human Torch is just a more compelling character, Bill”, said Burgos with a witty smile. “There is no point on arguing. See how he got the cover of the first issue.”
“Oh, come on”, replied Everett. “The covers are just for the masses. Namor is a more complex character than that mechanical match.”
“That John Carter from the sea? That one you can´t decide if he´s a world conqueror or a superhero?”
“It´s called character development, Carl.”
“It´s called indecision.”
“Oh, don´t be ridiculous!”
They were walking on the corridors of Timely´s building. The place where dreams were born… and hands were broken drawing an insane amount of pages.
“What do you think about the new editor? What was he called?”, asked Bill.
“I don´t know. Liebert, maybe?”
“Yes, that one! I don´t know. Seems like he´s a good fella, but who knows?”
“A little bossy.”
“Yeah, well, he´s the editor.”
“What has he done to become an editor?”
“Don´t be so harsh, Carl. I think we can get in good terms with him.”
“I don´t know. Don´t trust this kind of guy. You hear what he said? He says he wants to write the great American novel, that this new name of his is only for children´s comics.”
“He. What a guy. What was that name of his? I hope he doesn´t expect me to learn two names.”
“It was Lee. Stan Lee.”
They knocked the door and entered the room. And there was him.
He wasn´t so tall or muscular, but he his presence was the biggest thing in that office. His hands were shaking with expectation and even rage, his smile pointed directly at them and his eyes… he had what the Man in Black would later call the “evil eye.” An eye for business, an eye for public relationships. An eye looking at any idea worth stealing.
“Ah, boys”, he said. “You´re here. How you doing, my troupe of artists?”
“Good, good”, replied Bill. “What have you called us for?”
“Well, because I suppose you´re not busy. You´ve finished an issue recently, haven´t you?”
“Very recently”, pointed Burgos. “Why do you say it?”
“Well, I´ve thought that these issues that you did… that included the story in which the Human Torch met Namor… were very profitable.”
They looked at each other. They smelled the sheer thirst for money. They started to shiver.
“What do you mean, Stan? Why do you tell us now?”
“Ah, good question, my dear Bill! A good question indeed! Well… you know, we need the next issue of The Human Torch really soon… so I was wondering… can my dear Bill and Carl make a big-size story about a cross between these two wondrous, marvelous heroes they created?”
“Well”, answered Burgos with a frowny face. “Yes, with time.”
“Time! Ah, I see you´re clever, Carl… because that´s exactly our problem. We need it for Monday.”
“But Stan…”, begged Bill. Or at least he was going to beg, but his editor interrupted him.
“Yes, yes, I know it´s Friday. But that´s why I´m asking you! Come on, guys, I trust you. You´re the best I have.”
“What about Jack?”
“Carl, he´s really busy. Besides, it is you who created those characters! Who´s gonna do it better?”
“Well, I suppose…”
“That´s the spirit, fella! And, like Jack, I´m very busy, guys. Let´s hang out some day, but for now… see you on Monday!”
He almost hit them with the door when he closed.
“You know what that means?”, asked Carl, with a red face and resignation all over his soul.
“Of course. We have to call the gang.”
“The gang?”, shouted her. “I knew it! You´re all gangsters! I´m going to call the guards, sir! You´d better leave!”
“Oh, shut up!”, screamed a tired voice. “The other neighbors have already called the police!”
“Perhaps it is you who should shut up, Compton”, stated Chapman. “Don´t worry about him, he´s just an assistant.”
“Yes, Compton, an assistant. Nothing bad about it. You see, madam? This is the gang. Nothing more than a troupe of artist hanging around together, building the hopes and dreams for a future generation of soldiers. Saying what we think about that maniac, Hitler.”
“Oh. Well… and what about that Stalin?”
“Guys! Have you heard it!? America has spoken! My decision to bring Stalin into the game was a good idea! Somebody draw it somewhere!”
“Where?”, inquired Kapitan. “We have no…”
“Oh, shut up”, said Zahle, while he started to erase one of his drawings.
“What? You can´t possibly erase that worried German citizen! It is a way to show how Hitler oppresses them!”
“Yes, we can”, answered Carl. “Because we´re going to take on Stalin.”
“And change the dialogue!”, shouted that Mr. Everett, suffering a severe case of insanity. “Put something like… who knows, they complaining about each other´s propaganda!”
“Ah, this is a true exercise of patriotism.”
“Well, Mr. Chapman, patriots should let other people sleep.”
“Ah, who can sleep these days with the roaring of the bombs in Europe?”
“Well, I don´t know who can, but I need to sleep. If my son comes back from the Army, I want him to have an useful mother.”
“Your son a soldier?”, asked Carl, while he was writing the dialogue between Namor and that woman that had seduced him.
“Soldiers love these!”
“Indeed, madam”, answered Chapman. “Come in, see how we work. You might even be helpful.”
“Why? Aren´t you all big professional writers?”
“I´m a penciler!”, screamed Sahle.
“Shut up and finish that Mars!”
“Ah, it was such a good idea to include him…”
“Yes, yes”, interrupted her. “But, tell me, what can I help in?”
“Well”, began Everett, “I think these cops Mr. Jones has called could be very… unpleasant. Not the best partners to work with.”
“Ok, I´ll talk with them. What else?”
“I don´t know.”
“Hey!”, interrupted Compton. “She´s the public! Tell us: why would you come back to this comic?”
“We need a hook”, explained Mr. Everett.
“I´m talking with her, Bill.”
“Ok, Compton. Let´s see if you´re good at this.”
“Yes, Ms. Robinson.”
“First alcohol and then this? Oh, my goodness, this is…”
“No, Ms. Robinson, hear us out. I´m talking about something for fans to come back. Something that will make them think that next comic is going to be different, that turns this story into something more complex. That makes them care about the characters.”
“Well, young man, tell me who these characters are.”
“Well, there´s the Human Torch…”, began Burgos.
“He means the Human Match. A robot that can cover himself on fire and fly. Not related powers? I know. God, I do know.”
“Shut up, Bill! What about that Fishman you have as a hero?”
“He´s not called Fishman! And at least he doesn´t have that Robin rip-off!”
“Hey, a kid sidekick can be very useful! Not like that… Porma?”
“It´s Dorma, you…”
“Calm down, young men”, she said. “You know, it is a good idea to have a kid in the team. Folks will worry when he´s in danger, you know? So it would be a good idea to let something happen to him. Who knows, maybe getting kidnapped or disappear. That would make the audience mad.”
“This lady´s a seller!”, exclaimed Kapitan. “Good idea, madam! I can see the ending: a big question in the panel, tormenting those brats for months until they find the answer! Yeah, good idea!”
“Oh, who´s the artsy and pretentious cartoonist now?”, inquired Sahle with a witty smile.
“It´s still you, you femmie.”
“Come on, guys!”, shouted Bill. “We only have 16 hours left and almost none liquor! Comic book business is a busy business!”
They began to work again. She aided them by giving them ideas, ordering their disastrous work, telling them that everything was gonna be alright if they worked harder… essentially, becoming the mother of the guys. The mother of those guys who were living the hidden part of the American dream and were singing its praises to the world. The sacrificed mother of all the States.
Suddenly, the police came. She went out to receive them.
“Madam”, said the officer. “We´ve been called. Was it you?”
“Yes, agent. I think there are Nazi agents on this building.”
“Nazis!?”, exclaimed him.
“Yes, sir. Nazis.”
“Just tell me where they are, madam.”
She pointed with her finger.
“Mr. Jones. He shouts really loud at nights, and I think he does it in German.”
The cop smiled.
“Thank you, madam. It is probably nothing, but I´ll see what they´re doing. Hey… are you guys drawing comics?”
“And writing, Mr. Cop”, pointed Compton.
“Oh. My boy loves comics. Good job, fellas.”
“Thank you verrrrry much, Mr. Cop!”
When he arrested the infuriated Mr. Jones, they continued to do their job.
They left it a hundred times and came back another hundred. They cried, they laughed and they tried to kill each other. Kapitan almost succeeded. But, at the end, they could look at their work with a proud smile on their faces. The Depression, the War… no need to think about it. Not for now, at least.
Only problem to think about? Well... where was Toro?
The soldier laughed at that story. It was campy, innocent… even the destruction was humorous. But still… it was engaging. Yes, these heroes fighting traitors and tyrants… it made him feel a marvelous sensation.
It certainly helped him. For the time that he was reading it, Mark Robinson could fly away to fantastic worlds where good triumphs and evil is defeated. He dind´t have to think about his poor mother, living alone in New York City.
Mark wondered how she was doing.
“Well”, thought him as he shook his head. “It won´t be a long time. I´ll leave Pearl Harbor soon.”